Photo: The New York Daily News covers the first Earth Day, 1970
By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director
The biggest Earth Day celebration I attended happened 30 years ago when I volunteered as an Earth Day ranger at one of the largest gatherings ever held in New York City in Central Park. It was a big deal, and we had high hopes. Some 750,000 people gathered that day to celebrate 20 years of Earth Day with an incredible, free musical lineup featuring The B-52s, Edie Brickell, and Daryl Hall and John Oates. I was a senior in high school, ready to launch into the world and tackle the most pressing local and global environmental issues, like Amazonian deforestation at the mercy of corporate America’s fast food desires.
Central Park was pulsating to “Love Shack” and other upbeat tunes that beautiful, sunny day, but sadness hit me when the huge crowds departed and left behind thousands of pounds of garbage that I and other rangers cleaned up. This day was supposed to be a call to action and an awakening to celebrate and care for the planet. Instead, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and raised all sorts of unanswered questions about how positive change could take root.
In 1990, sustainable development was the buzzword of the day, but we struggled to find practical examples where modern industrial communities didn’t externalize costs and create products that harmed and polluted natural ecosystems and wildlife. Finding this balance seemed distant, particularly without the kind of technologies that have revolutionized the way we live, work, and play today. In those days, wewere thinking about organic food, plastics, toxic and chemical contamination, and wilderness protections, to name a few leading concerns. Even though climate change and global warming weren’t officially part of our vocabulary, we were worried about ozone holes and CFCs in styrofoam and other products.
But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.
In the three decades since, success stories have given us hope with the healing of some rivers, lakes, estuaries, and wetlands, the revival of polluted Rust Belt cities, and the protection of ecologically critical habitats. But we also have witnessed the continued transformation of megacities and urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, the proliferation of global oil production and plastics, and the unprecedented growth of consumerism and cheap products. Our actions have had profound effects that ripple to every corner of the Earth.
The interconnectedness of human and natural ecosystems has never been more apparent. It’s the clarion call, the mantra, and the rallying cry of this global pandemic crisis: We’re all in this together. This virus does not discriminate, taking the lives of people from all socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and yet, the death toll is disproportionately higher among African Americans and other people of color. In Michigan, for example, African Americans constitute just 14 percent of Michigan’s population, but account for 35 percent of the cases and 40 percent of the deaths attributable to COVID-19, to date. Healthy ecosystems depend on healthy, equitable communities, and access to water. Period.
But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.
So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during these uncertain times, one thing is certain: protecting clean water is more important than ever before. This global pandemic has exposed the gross inequities of our society, including the unconscionable practice of denying people basic access to water for drinking, hand washing, cooking, bathing, and sanitation.
It is time for us to demand public water and public justice for all. Not just water for some. Without access to life’s most essential need — water —our society will falter and our future will falter. This work demands that frontline groups and policy organizations work side-by-side in our collective struggle for water justice. This organizing principle of empowerment guides our work at FLOW. It is a time for us to reimagine how we rebuild a just and equitable society where water is recognized and protected as a human right, where our economy respects human and natural capital, and where we no longer take each other and this small blue planet for granted.
Because we’re concerned about protection of water, the FLOW staff and board make frequent reference to the hydrologic cycle in our conversations. You know, the movement of water from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the cycles of politics also come to mind.
Dave Dempsey as a 2-year-old boy (left) together with his brother Jack (right) in 1959 on the shore of Lake Erie, before the tumult of the 1960s and the environmental progress of 1970.
I was 13 and unconcerned about environmental issues on the first Earth Day in 1970—teenage obsessions were foremost on my mind. But because my father was a public servant and spoke to my brothers and me about policy, governance, and elections throughout our youth, I was well aware of the social ferment around the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. Among my formative memories were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when I was barely old enough to understand it and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. My generation came of age during a domestic and overseas bloodbath, but also a time of rising activism to make the world better.
But only when I look back at 1970 later in life, as an amateur environmental historian, do I fully appreciate what happened that year. It wasn’t just April 22—the first celebration of Earth Day—it was 12 months of successful citizen work to raise consciousness and pass new federal and state laws that revolutionized America’s treatment of air, water, land, fish, and wildlife. Michigan was a national leader on the environment throughout 1970. Every time I think of Michigan in 1970, I am deeply grateful to the many largely unsung citizens who pressured elected officials to conserve and protect the environment. We owe them a great debt for reforms that persist today.
By the time I dedicated myself professionally to environmental policy, the cycle had moved almost to the opposite side. Michigan’s unemployment hit 17% in 1982, and conservative political forces had chosen environmental laws and rules as one culprit (even though, in reality, an energy crisis and policies to squeeze inflation had induced a national downturn).
Most of my career has taken place in that long swing of the pendulum. For the most part, my contemporaries and I have been playing defense. In a swirling flood of destruction, we’ve been holding on to many of 1970s’ gains like a life raft.
That’s the policy world. In the world of public consciousness, the need for environmental protection has remained steadfast. What seems to have changed, then, is the link between public opinion and public policy.
Opponents—primarily Big Business and Big Agriculture—have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly saying they doubt the need for environmental protection, as they often did in 1970, they acknowledge the need but offer a different route—voluntary, non-enforceable stewardship that has proven to be undependable. It almost makes me long for the days when they were blunt about their belief that environmental protections were a luxury America could not afford. They aren’t so direct now. They exploit Supreme Court decisions about back-door corporate funding of political campaigns and lavish significant sums to install candidates who talk a good environmental game, but won’t deliver.
These changes could lead one to despair, but they shouldn’t. When I first started looking at Michigan’s environmental history, I found evidence of the first lonely citizen voices who sounded alarms about the ravaging of Michigan’s forest, fish, and game in the 1870s. Those voices swelled into a chorus within decades, and a crescendo in 1970. If those earliest conservation pioneers could start from nothing 150 years ago to accomplish so much over generations, we should take heart. We are neither few, nor lonely.
I began this essay by talking about cycles. There are indeed cycles of water and politics, but there is also a kind of renewable energy in the citizenry. What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to fight for what the previous one accomplished, it will likely be the next generation’s accomplishment to make the broad advances needed to assure a high quality of life for humans and the world we inhabit.
One of the slogans of Earth Day 1970 was “think globally, act locally.” Fifty years later, I would frame it in time, rather than scale: Think millennially, act perennially.
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
Dave Dempsey is the senior policy advisor at FLOW.
Organizers of the original Earth Day celebration at U-M reunite 50 years later. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
By Lana Pollack
Lana Pollack has served as President and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, U.S. Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, and a three-term state senator.
The first Earth Day celebration at University of Michigan did not wait until April 22, 1970, the date Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson had set for environmental teach-ins across the country.In Ann Arbor, this history-changing observation blasted off March 11 when 15,000 people jammed U-M’s Crisler Arena, and thousands more crowded its parking lot.The four-day happening was sponsored by a new U-M organization, Environmental Action for Survival of the Planet (ENACT), and it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its young organizers.
By the time this Earth Day precursor closed, 50,000 people had attended 125 events, virtually all of which had been amply covered by national press. Determined to be inclusive, ENACT’s organizers invited and accepted requests to speak from a dizzyingly diverse collection of high-profile individuals ranging from the avuncular Arthur Godfrey to the all-but nude cast of the musical Hair and top-of-the-charts singer Gordon Lightfoot.Headline environmentalist Barry Commoner was joined by Michigan’s Governor William Milliken, the University’s President Robben Fleming (exceptionally adept at avoiding conflict by giving voice to student concerns), the presidents of both Dow Chemical and the United Auto Workers, along with environmental leaders from around the country and of course Senator Gaylord Nelson. Almost every University School and department sponsored a workshop, lecture or symposium on environmental issues related to its discipline.
Not surprisingly, as U-M had been a focal point for many of the white-hot 1960s protests, this environmental happening did not want for a generous dose of zaniness mixed with serious social criticism. A blue Ford Mustang was put on trial in the center of campus.In spite of arguments energetically presented in defense of the accused car (the auto industry was the backbone of Michigan’s economy), the Mustang was found “guilty of murder of the American public.”Its sentence was death by sledge hammers, with hundreds of observers cheering the executioners.
Somehow, I missed the car’s demise, the ceremonial dumping of thousands of non-recyclable coke cans, Gordon Lightfoot, the crowds in Crisler Arena and even the lectures and symposia in the School of Education where I attended classes and my four-year-old son, John, went to pre-school.
How did I, a politically interested student who was on campus almost every day, miss out on this eclectic happening we now recognize as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement?Given my full-on commitment to environmental advocacy in the decades that followed, I’ve questioned why I was not an organizer, or at least a participant.In positing my answer, I have vivid memories of an overwhelmed young woman, determined to be a flawless supermom while completing her MA in Education and maintaining a household that showed not a speck of disorder. And all of this in an age when even the nicest of husbands (mine) felt their professional work excused them from sharing childcare responsibilities with their wives.
But there was another reason I was MIA from Michigan’s original Earth Day, a reason I understand better years on in reading about a memorable session dubbed the Scream-Out. The Scream-Out was the platform for those who thought Gaylord Nelson was wrong in calling for a national day of environmental reflection.In preparing the multifaceted program, organizers had faced arguments that an active environmental movement would only distract from more pressing social injustices.Black student activists saw all that was lacking in commitment to ending campus racism.Just before the four-day, 50,000-person Earth Day teach-in, the U-M campus had been wrenched by a campus-wide strike led by the Black Action Movement (BAM).In a tense two-week stand-off, a large and growing number of professors and students (myself included) refused to cross picket lines in support of BAM’s demands to raise black student enrollment and increase successful minority engagement on campus.
Joined by frustrated anti-war protestors on a campus that fairly enough claimed to be the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it was not surprising that there were both black and white reformers who questioned the importance of Johnny-come-lately environmentalism. (At the time, just a few environmental activists and scholars were beginning to conceptualize environmental justice.) Although I did not consciously decide to boycott the environmental teach-in, I do recall thinking that both the women’s and the environmental movements were of less significance than fighting racism and the Viet Nam War. It was at the Scream-Out, had I attended it, that I would have heard a substantive discussion of my own poorly-formed concerns.
But I didn’t go. I had two small children to care for, MA degree assignments to be finished, and a broken refrigerator to be replaced at home.I could never have imagined in 1970 that both my husband and I would spend decades dedicating ourselves to advancing deeper environmental understandings and better environmental laws, no matter what other responsibilities we faced.
Ironically, my slow-off-the-blocks start as an environmentalist has made me a more effective advocate. Remembering how overwhelmed I felt then, toiling to manage multiple responsibilities, has prompted me to be more respectful when engaging with people struggling today to get on top of their own lives’ demands. And recalling that on Earth Day One I viewed environmental concerns as competitors with — rather than integral to — battles for social, economic and racial justice, prods me now to act more inclusively, recognizing that the fabric of a healthy planet and just society is woven from many threads.
Photo: a 1970 Earth Day poster at the University of Michigan.
By Mel Visser
April 22 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 1970, a milestone in this country’s environmental history. We asked people of all perspectives to provide us their thoughts on the meaning of this anniversary.
Around the time of Earth Day’s inception in 1970, the rallying cry of “Think Globally, Act Locally” emerged. Fifty years of local action has greatly improved our air and waters, but is Earth any better off? Let’s look back at global/local/environmental evolution to see where we were, where we are, and where we are going.
The Grand Rapids of my youth was a sustainable nirvana. All beverages were purchased in refillable glass bottles; all paper, glass, and metals were recycled (with companies paying to get the materials); backyard gardens supplied vegetables, fruits and berries; eggs came from nearby farms; public transportation prospered, and carpooling was extensively practiced. Broken items were fixed and nothing was thrown away. The main reason for this was that World War II consumed our resources. Gasoline, sugar, paper, and dozens of other necessities were rationed or unavailable.
After the war factories churned out civilian goods like cars, bicycles, refrigerators, and radios. The chemical age offered “Better things for Better Living through Chemistry.” DDT killed pesky mosquitos, fireproof PCBs replaced flammable oils, and plastics brought us all manner of wonder. The United States became the global supplier of automobiles, hardware, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products. Our population boomed and we prospered. Our attitude toward the environment remained as it did during the war: a few dead fish in the river and air that made you choke was the price of progress. Earth could take care of herself.
Municipal sanitary waste, farm runoff, and factory effluents filled our rivers with nutrients and toxics. Weeds choked, rivers died, fish turned belly up, and even the “unpollutable” Great Lakes lost their ability to sustain life. The “price of progress” was questioned. Turning around ingrained practices of freely discharging municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes was difficult and as contentious as today’s politics. Massive federal spending addressed our toilet discharges and laws and regulations were enacted to control industry. Resulting industrial “discharge permits” were viewed as a “license to pollute” by the activist public and cries of “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) developed. Industry, the institution that was once perceived as the provider of health, wealth, and comfort was now perceived as an Earth destroying monster.
Other countries recovering from World War II, economically disadvantaged by importing U.S. manufactured goods, desired their own wealth and job creating manufacturing. The American public supported manufacturing’s offshore migration as the natural progression to a service economy, a society of intellectuals, researchers and developers with manufacturing relegated to a lesser developed nation. Earth suddenly became “economically flat,” with low-cost producers supplying global needs. Nations eager to raise their citizenry from poverty jumped onto this concept. The locus of global manufacturing shifted East where terrible working conditions, rape of the environment, and cheap coal for energy were major components of low-cost. Our economically flat world became environmentally warped!
Acting locally has gotten us clean air and water, but what has it done for Earth? Aren’t we rather arrogant to relish our environment while importing cheap manufactured goods made by people choking on their air and vomiting from their water? Will countries continue to meet carbon dioxide emission targets by sending manufacturing to countries without targets? Sustainability of climate and health demands a much less myopic view of Earth thinking/acting than the first 50 years of celebrating Earth Day has given us.
Mel Visser was born in Grand Rapids, educated in Houghton, and worked in Portage, Michigan. As the executive in charge of environmental compliance at a major Michigan chemical manufacturer, Mel served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Michigan’s Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Great Lakes Regional Corporate Environmental Council (Founding Cochair), and the State’s Innovative Technology Task Force. Unable to understand why banned chemicals remained at hazardous levels in the great Lakes, in retirement Mel traveled and researched the issue, culminating in his book Cold, Clear, and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy(MSU Press 2007). Mel and his wife Gloria now split their time between Portage and their condominium in Hancock. Mel serves on the Community Advisory Group to the Kalamazoo River PCB contamination site and is active in Great Lakes contamination and climate issues at Michigan Tech.
Photo: Students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized an environmental teach-in attended by 50,000 people in March 1970. It led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
By Dave Dempsey
Although American environmentalism reaches back to the early 20th century, public demands for clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems reached a crescendo in 1970. As 2020 dawns, FLOW believes it’s time to remember and reflect on all that happened that 50 years ago—and how we can make the next 50 years a time of further dramatic progress for our precious waters and the environment.
At the five-day teach-in, in which an estimated 50,000 people participated, Victor Yannacone, a nationally recognized environmental attorney, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edward Muskie of Maine.
The national observance of Earth Day followed on April 22.
Earth Day 1970, however, was just one of many events and accomplishments—and a few crises—both nationally and in Michigan. During 2020, FLOW will note these and other milestones from 50 years ago:
December 31, 1970:The Michigan Great Lakes Shorelands Act was signed into law by Governor Milliken.
The first milestone, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was co-authored by the late Congressman John Dingell of Michigan. As its title suggests, the law established a federal policy on the environment, created a federal Council on Environmental Quality, and required environmental impact statements on proposed major federal activities affecting the environment.
President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation, said, “I have become convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and its living environment.”
In 1970, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that the United States and Michigan needed to do a much better job of protecting our environment. It’s a lesson from which we can learn today.
Share Your Environmental Recollections from 1970
FLOW is looking for contributions from you for this 50th anniversary year of Earth Day and related milestones. Here’s how you can help:
Suggest additional local, state, or national milestones from 1970.
Provide short guest commentaries (500 words) with your views on the significance of 1970, what’s happened since then environmentally, and where you hope we stand 50 years from now.
Provide your historical photos of significant environmental events from 1970.
Michigan has many magnificent natural features, but none is quite like Hartwick Pines. A small remnant of the great white pine forest that spanned millions of acres of Michigan before the European arrival, the 49 acres at the heart of Hartwick Pines contain trees as tall as 160 feet and as old as 400 years. When, in 1992, a storm mortally wounded the tallest and largest of the primeval trees, known as the Monarch, it generated news headlines.
Another great tree has fallen. On Friday, October 18, former Governor William G. Milliken passed away at age 97 in Traverse City. The longest-serving governor in the history of Michigan, Milliken distinguished himself in numerous other ways, several of which seem especially important today.
Former Vermont Governor Richard Snelling in 1982 suggested that Milliken “will surely be recorded in history as one of the nation’s great governors.” The day after Milliken’s passing, the Traverse City Record-Eagle wrote in an editorial that, “We cherish our governor … for his most precious quality: his innate ability to set aside party, politics and partisanship for the good of all Michiganders”.
Perhaps the Governor’s most lasting policy legacy is the framework of environmental laws that came into being during his 14 years in office, from 1969 to 1982. It was a case of the right person at the right time. As public consciousness of a century of environmental neglect and abuse peaked, and a clamor for a new approach grew to a crescendo, Governor Milliken took the initiative to propose or support, and ultimately sign into law the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Wetland Protection Act, the Wilderness and Natural Areas Act, the Sand Dune Management and Protection Act, and many more. When the Legislature deadlocked on a proposed recycling deposit on beer and soda containers, he helped lead a citizen initiative to put the proposed law on the ballot. Voters approved it by a two-to-one margin in 1976.
Even in the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day, it wasn’t always politically easy to push for a cleaner environment. When scientists identified phosphorus laundry soaps as a major contributor to the algae blooms in western Lake Erie and elsewhere, the proposed remedy was a strict limitation on phosphorus content. Major Republican contributors strongly opposed the change, but Milliken defied them and took aggressive action to bring it into effect. Within only several years phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants plummeted and Lake Erie began to recover.
Another important part of the Milliken record was his concern for the state’s great cities, including Detroit, which was deeply distressed during the 1970s. Working with Democratic Mayor Coleman Young, he invested state and federal resources in the city and won political support unusual for a Republican in the city. Today Milliken’s name crowns Michigan’s first urban state park on the Detroit waterfront.
Milliken’s regard for Michigan’s environment began early. His Traverse City upbringing (and a cottage in nearby Acme) acquainted him with woods and waters. Among his earliest memories were outdoor outings and swimming in Grand Traverse Bay. Deeply rooted in his home community, he frequently returned on weekends to his house on the bay while governor, finding peace and renewal.
But the Governor’s environmental record and values are not his only legacy. His style of governance—shunning the extremes, looking for solutions on which diverse interests could compromise for the public good—was the ultimate trademark of his service. In a time of divided government, when Democrats largely controlled the Legislature, he was able to enact his program through negotiation and cooperation.
Governor Milliken did not demonize his opponents. Public name-calling was foreign to him. And his civility worked. He remained in office longer than any other governor of Michigan in part because voters trusted him to do the right thing.
In researching and writing Governor Milliken’s biography, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate, I was honored to spend many hours with him and his wife Helen Milliken, a major historical figure in her own right. They were in person as they were in public—unfailingly gracious, kind, and reflective. There was nothing false or inauthentic about them.
In our time together, both Millikens spoke repeatedly of their appreciation of Michigan’s beauty and the need to continue fighting to protect it. It should not be forgotten that it was Helen Milliken who alerted her husband to the controversy over oil development in the wilds of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, and urged him to take a stand in favor of the forest’s conservation. She was a major influence on his environmental policies.
After he left office, he famously summarized his environmental values: “In Michigan,” he said, “our soul is not to be found in steel and concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather, it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”
A part of Michigan’s soul passed from the scene last week, but thanks to Governor Milliken’s work, our soul will renew itself for generations to come.
A memorial service for Governor Milliken will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.
John Hartig is intimately connected with one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in the United States, the recovery of the once highly degraded Detroit River. He retired in 2018after 14 years as manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and more than 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In his new book, Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All, he chronicles the exciting comeback of the river and the connection restoration efforts have forged between the community and the river.
What is the single most important thing a prospective reader should know about your new book?
Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with nature, help revitalize Detroit and its metropolitan region, and help foster a more sustainable future. In its first 10 years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy raised $110 million to build east riverfront portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and raised another nearly $40 million for an endowment to operate, maintain, steward, and program it with quality and in perpetuity. Economists have quantified that in the first 10 years of the Detroit RiverWalk, there was an over $1 billion return on this investment, with the potential for greater return in the future. All of this happened while Detroit became the largest city in the United States to go through bankruptcy. This was an amazing accomplishment that can be directly traced to the unique public-private partnership called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its approach of democratic design that ensured all stakeholders were involved and would benefit. If this can be done in Detroit, it can be done elsewhere and clearly gives hope to all.
You’ve dedicated much of your life and career to restoring the Detroit River. What motivates you and where did your relationship with the river begin?
I grew up in metropolitan Detroit in Allen Park during the 1960s. My family enjoyed picnicking and canoeing on Belle Isle and fishing in the Detroit River. In the summer, we would vacation up north in different cottages and my sister and I attended a church camp in a wilderness area of the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. These formative years provided me with two polar-opposite experiences — one recreating in pristine lakes and rivers up north and the other recreating in and along the polluted Detroit River. I could not understand why there was such a stark contrast. Then in 1969, when I was a junior at Allen Park High School, the Rouge River caught on fire because of oil pollution. The next year, when I was a senior in high school, I attended an Earth Day Rally on the football field of Allen Park High School that opened my eyes to the environmental degradation that was occurring everywhere. I decided I wanted to help be part of the solution. While attending Eastern Michigan University I got hooked on the study of lakes and rivers, and have been fortunate to be able to combine my vocation with my advocation.
Why did the River deteriorate so much up to the 60s and what are the principal factors that turned it around?
During the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. In 1960 and 1967, 12,000 and 4,700 waterfowl died in the Detroit River because of oil pollution, respectively. In 1969, the lower Rouge River, right before it discharges into the Detroit River, caught on fire because of oil pollution. In 1970, the “Mercury Crisis” caused the closure of commercial and sport fishing on the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and western Lake Erie because of mercury contamination. All of this led to public outcry over water pollution that contributed to the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, public outcry over water pollution and regulation have been the driving forces behind the revival of the Detroit River.
How important was the work of the late Congressman Dingell to river restoration?
The late Congressman John Dingell had more impact on the cleanup of the Detroit River than any other person. He was the key author of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, these acts have been the driving force behind the cleanup of the Detroit River. In more recent years he was the author of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act of 2001 that helped change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted river in the Rust Belt to an international wildlife refuge that brings conservation to the Detroit metropolitan area and helps make nature part of everyday urban life. He is a true conservation hero for our region, our country, and North America.
What remains to be done?
Clearly, much remains to be done to restore physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Detroit River. Key challenges include addressing: human population growth, transportation expansion, and land use changes; continued loss and degradation of habitat; pollution from the runoff from our streets, parking lots, and roofs; remediation of contaminated river sediments and brownfields; introduction of exotic species; and climate change. To address these challenges, we need an informed constituency that cares about the river as their home, ensures continuous and vigorous oversight, and speaks out for continued cleanup and rehabilitation. A key part of this has been reconnecting people to the Detroit River through the Detroit RiverWalk, other greenways, parks like Belle Isle, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with the Detroit River, help revitalize the city and region, help foster a more sustainable future, and help develop a stewardship ethic within the citizenry. Completing the Detroit RiverWalk, greenway connections to neighborhoods like the May Creek Greenway and the Joseph Campau Greenway, and the Joe Louis Greenway that circumnavigates the city are key elements in reconnecting people with nature, developing greater environmental literacy, and developing a stewardship ethic so necessary for restoring and sustaining the integrity of the Detroit River.
It is fair to say that the Detroit RiverWalk would not have been built without the cleanup of the Detroit River. But it is also true that continued cleanup of the Detroit River will require an informed and vocal constituency who cares for the river as their home and greenways like the Detroit RiverWalk help reconnect people with amazing natural resources right in their backyard, inspire a sense of wonder, and help foster a stewardship ethic.
Are you optimistic about the future of the River? Why or why not?
I am optimistic about the future. The major accomplishment of the public outcry over water pollution in the 1960s was the establishment of major environmental laws and agreements like the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. This is an amazing set of accomplishments from concerned citizens working together to speak out for clean water. In my opinion, the major accomplishment of more recent times is the establishment of a plethora of environmental organizations, conservation organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. For the Detroit River it is organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Friends of the Detroit River, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and many more. These organizations have picked up the environmental baton from citizen activists of the 1960s and 1970s and are continuing the long restoration race to ensure that a cleaner Detroit River is a gift to future generations. This gives me optimism and hope.
Above: Poster for the ENACT (Environmental Action for Survival) Earth Day Teach-In on the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor campus in March 1970.
“Man has so severely despoiled his natural environment that serious concern exists for his survival…What began as an idea and a desire to do something about saving our environment by a small study group has now mushroomed into an officially recognized organization with nearly 200 members.”
— From the newsletter of ENACT (ENvironmental ACTion for Survival), University of Michigan, Nov. 19-28, 1969
The public concern awakened in 1962 by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had deepened with news of the exploding world population and declining wildlife species like bald eagles, which plummeted to just 82 pairs in Michigan during the 1960s after DDT exposure thinned their eggshells. As pollution darkened skies and choked rivers, many new activists drew a link between environmental problems and threats to the survival of the human race. The new movement of environmentalists suddenly became a major force in Michigan during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Jane Elder, who worked for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club in the 1970s, said, “I and many others of the new environmental movement came of political age during the closing scenes of Viet Nam and the crest of civil rights. We knew we could change the world, and saving the environment was part of that agenda. We saw a generation of activists stop a war. Our motivations were driven in part by collective vision and passion, not the inside game.”
The Pioneering Work of Joan Wolfe in Michigan
One of the most effective of the new advocates was a bird-lover, mother, and volunteer, Joan Wolfe of Rockford, north of Grand Rapids. Born in Detroit in 1929, Wolfe grew up in Highland Park with parents who contributed considerable time to community affairs. Her mother was president of the local hospital auxiliary and of the Girl Scout Council; her father was president of the Highland Park school board and of the state chapter of the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers. By contrast, her husband Willard had no family tradition of community activism, but had become an active fly fisherman. In his childhood living on the Detroit River at Grosse Ile just before World War II, he had seen “tremendous weed growth” and stayed out of the polluted water, but hadn’t then made broader observations about the condition of the outdoors. He was delighted to find trout in the Rogue River, which wound through the Rockford area, when the Wolfes moved there in the late 1950s. But the same stream was also fouled by effluent from the Wolverine Tannery and a paper mill. “There was no outcry,” Will Wolfe said in 1999. “It was still too close to the Depression. The problem was too close to the bread and butter of the community.”
Soon both of the Wolfes would become activists. In the early 1960s, Joan Wolfe became president of the Grand Rapids Audubon Club. In that position she tried to call the attention of Audubon members to issues that connected bird conservation to larger trends such as habitat loss and pesticide use.
A fire on the Cuyahoga River at Cleveland in July 1969 helped galvanize public sentiment for Earth Day the following year. A fire also erupted on the Rouge River in southeast Michigan in October 1969, alarming the public and inspiring calls for tougher environmental laws.
Her most important work began in 1966. Working with 11 sponsoring organizations, Joan Wolfe coordinated an all-day seminar that October at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids to educate the community about problems facing the local, state, and national environment. It was one of the biggest events of its kind in that era, attracting over 500 people, half of them college students. Officials of the state conservation and public health departments spoke on the need for better sewage systems and the dangers of persistent chemicals, but others addressed threats caused by growing population and a social attitude that science could fix any natural resource problem. Dr. Howard Tanner of Michigan State University’s Department of Natural Resources said the predicted U.S. population of 400 million in the year 2000 posed special challenges, adding, “if we don’t put a level on our population and give thought to its distribution, we’re just stupid. There’s no other word for it.” Merrill L. Petoskey, assistant manager of the Southern Michigan Region of the department of conservation, called humankind “too reckless and too greedy. It’s almost past time when we can repair the damage we have caused.”
The process of planning the seminar had resulted in general agreement among the sponsoring organizations that the community needed a coordinating organization. In February 1968, Joan Wolfe pulled together a dinner of Grand Rapids community leaders to ask their support for something she was calling the West Michigan Council on Environmental Action. The roster of the meeting was extensive and impressive. Paid for by the Dyer-Ives Foundation, the dinner was attended by representatives of the local League of Women Voters, the West Michigan Tourist Association, the local Garden Club, the Anti-Pollution Committee of the utility workers local union, the Isaac Walton League, the Grand Rapids Press and WOOD-TV, the president of Grand Valley State College, and other dignitaries.
The group agreed on the need for a council of organizations and individuals who would work together on environmental causes, and they signed up to support it. At the new council’s first meeting the following month, Wolfe was named president. The council grew quickly to include 45 organizations and more than 400 individuals. The organization also launched its issues work quickly, speaking at numerous hearings held by government agencies. An official of the state water resources commission exclaimed at a public hearing in 1968, “This is the first time we’ve heard from the grass roots.”
Gaylord Nelson Takes It National
U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had proposed a national environmental “teach-in” on college campuses to be held in April, urging that it become an opportunity for learning about the nation’s and world’s grave environmental problems. Fueled by campus activism, the teach-ins evolved into Earth Day and stunned skeptics. An estimated 10,000 schools, 2,000 colleges and universities, and almost every community in the nation participated in events to celebrate and clean-up the environment. Cars were banned for two hours on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The U.S. Congress adjourned for Earth Day so that members could attend teach-ins in their districts.
All three major TV networks covered the events around the country. A geology student attending Albion College, Walter Pomeroy, appeared on a CBS-TV prime-time special on April 22, Earth Day: A Question of Survival, hosted by Walter Cronkite. In contrast to protests on other campuses that Cronkite called sometimes “frivolous,” the Albion activities Pomeroy organized included the cleanup of a vacant lot to create a small urban park.
Albion called itself “Manufacturing City U.S.A.,” CBS reported, and not all its foundries had installed air pollution control equipment. But Pomeroy told reporter Hughes Rudd that he had arranged meetings with the local polluters to promote dialogue. “We were afraid,” he said, “that if we picketed the factories, it would actually turn the community against us.” The special showed Pomeroy’s fellow students jumping up and down on the non-aluminum cans they’d collected in the cleanup, making them easier to return to the manufacturer with a message that it should switch to recyclable materials. Michigan television stations also broadcast specials in the season of Earth Day. WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids broadcast a series, Our Poisoned World, detailing serious local air, water, and noise pollution, and the problem of garbage disposal.
Michigan One of the Hotbeds of Earth Day Action
At a five-day teach-in on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor in March, in which an estimated 50,000 persons participated, Victor Yannacone, who in 1967 had filed the Environmental Defense Fund lawsuits to stop the spraying of DDT and dieldrin, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by popular singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Nelson and Edward Muskie of Maine.
Business Week magazine said the Ann Arbor event had attracted the greatest turnout of any teach-in to that date. Noting that President Richard Nixon and college administrators hoped environmental issues would turn students away from Vietnam War protests, the magazine fretted that it appeared “the struggle for clean air and water is producing as many radicals as the war. And if the rhetoric at Michigan is any guide, business will bear the brunt of criticism.”
Action Took Different Forms on Different Campuses
Tom Bailey, a Marquette high school student, worked with students at Northern Michigan University to plan Earth Day activities. One was a “flush-in.” Students flushed fluorescent dye tablets down dorm toilets at a synchronized moment in an effort to prove that sewage was directly discharging into Lake Superior.
Events like these not only attracted the attention of the press, but also gave future environmental professionals their first major public exposure. Bailey later worked for the state Department of Natural Resources, as had his father, and became executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy. One of ENACT’s founders on the University of Michigan campus, John Turner, later became director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Doug Scott, a graduate student active in ENACT’s teach-in planning, moved on to the national staff of the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club.
Student concern and action did not stop on Earth Day. Walt Pomeroy of Albion College contacted activists on other campuses who agreed the next logical step was the formation of a student lobby for the environment. Described as “lobbyists in blue jeans” by one newspaper, the new Michigan Student Environmental Confederation received a surprisingly warm welcome from some in the Capitol.
“Soon we made friends in the legislature on both sides of the aisle,” said Pomeroy in 1999. “We learned a day at a time. And since we were in the Capitol almost every day, our network of friends and supporters expanded from just student groups to a diversity of community, environmental and sportsmen groups. Legislative priorities turned into victories…We started an environmental organization with a good cause, not much financial support and worked with the sportsmen and other environmental groups. We created the path – the opportunity – for others to also organize environmental groups and hire staff. None had existed solely to focus on state environmental legislative policies prior to the creation of MSEC. Many followed and are now part of the accepted political landscape in Lansing and throughout Michigan.”
About the Author:
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
FLOW Senior Advisor Dave Dempsey has 35 years’ experience in environmental policy. He served as environmental advisor to former Michigan Governor James Blanchard and as policy advisor on the staff of the International Joint Commission. He has also provided policy support to the Michigan Environmental Council and Clean Water Action. He has authored several books on the Great Lakes and water protection.
This article has been edited and excerpted from Dave Dempsey’s book, Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader.